In Asharia, thousands of years pass with the same leaves on the same trees, the same blossoms opening at sunrise and wilting by dusk. To mortal eyes no seasons pass. But the day the universe became aware of its own existence was the first day of Asharia’s spring; the universe shall draw to a close on the last day of Asharia’s winter, waiting to be reborn at the next great cycle.
It was a late spring day.
Maraiya often walked along the shore of Asharia’s sea in the mornings, watching the sunlight from behind her reflected in the water, whether crashing vigorously against the sands or—as it was today—lapping gently at the shore. As often as not, her lover of the night before accompanied her. As often as not, he or she was mortal. Some day, she knew, she would be reprimanded—again—by Zanu for these dalliances, but she saw little harm in them.
This morning, Maraiya walked alone. Yet this morning, unlike nearly any other she could recall, another figure stood ahead of her on the shore just above the beach line, motionless, staring out at the horizon.
Maraiya adjusted her path, walking toward the other woman. She received no acknowledgement as she approached, but she expected none, even as she moved to stand beside her and face out to sea as well. They could hardly have made a more incongruous pair, she reflected in silent amusement. Herself, a tall feline woman with subtly mottled warm gray fur, golden eyes, and a form that had inspired countless statues, paintings and love songs across countless lands, under countless names and visages. The other, an even taller rabbit woman with bone white fur, ram horns and dragon claws, and solid moonlight eyes that even others of her kind, like Maraiya, rarely wished to meet for long. Extraordinarily—were they other than what they were—both possessed wings, but even in that they stood as opposites. The cat’s shone with iridescent silver feathers, rainbows swirling about her as she moved. The rabbit’s all but absorbed the light, blacker than a great raven’s.
They remained in companionable silence until Maraiya decided the first words to be spoken would be hers. “You are an unexpected sight this morning, Lady Inanael.”
The rabbit woman’s wings rustled, but she remained silent.
“Although,” she continued after a moment, “you are an unexpected sight in Asharia at all. Usually, if we see one another it’s me making a visit to you.” The cat tilted her head. “You rarely leave your land but for ill tidings, but since we haven’t all been summoned to Zanu’s palace, I trust you’re not here to bring dire news.”
Maraiya’s voice, as always, was honey, satin, the hearth on a winter’s night. When Inanael finally spoke, her voice, as always, was that of winter. “I am watching the ocean.”
The cat clasped her hands in front of her, and waited for the horned rabbit to continue.
“What would it take for the sea to be still?” she murmured. “For the waves to pause, the tide to remain in balance, neither in nor out.”
“That sounds like a riddle for Death rather than for Love,” Mariaya said with a curious laugh. “And do you mean any sea, or this sea? You and I may cause kingdoms to rise and fall, in our own ways. And I think you could—and shall, when it is the right time—bring the stars themselves raining down around our ears. But bring the sea of Asharia to a stop?” She pointed, tracing her slender finger through the air. “We could build a levee, a seawall. We could dig, and fashion a tide pool. Any sea can be stopped in a small place for a small time.” Mariaya considered several ways to frame her next question, then simply sighed, letting her arm drop. “Inanael, out of all of us you are quite possibly the least given to idle philosophy. Forgive my bluntness, but what is it that truly brings you here?”
At length, Inanael answered, again elliptically. “Of all of them, you are the only one who visits my land by choice.”
“Your land is beautiful, in its own way.”
“While I think so as well, I doubt any other would see that.” The rabbit finally turned her gaze away from the ocean toward the cat. “You said that one day I should—I would—come to you with questions of the heart.”
“A thousand thousand years ago.” She folded her arms, giving the rabbit a half-smile.
At that, the rabbit smiled back, fractionally. Mariaya doubted someone who knew Inanael less well would notice it as a smile. “Love is not my domain.”
“Death is not mine, yet come late winter even I shall die.” She shrugged. “Or—whatever it is we do. Yet I can tell you aren’t coming to me now because you’re in love. I would see that even in your eyes.”
“No. I…” Inanael trailed off, looking back at the sea, and flexed her wings. “We do not have the luxury of choosing our paths like mortals do, Mariaya. Yet despite that, you have always seemed so… carefree. One might say cavalier.”
“One would be wrong,” Mariaya said, tone dry. “We all must be what we are. The weight of my function is no less than yours.”
Inanael made a soft hmm nose, and fell silent for a time. “And I am what I must be. But… we can make small choices. Once in a great while, I wish to choose… brief respite.” She tilted her face up to the sky, eyes closed. “Of all of us, you are the only who has ever offered to listen.”
“You have always been the surest of us, and the most alone.” Maraiya bit her lip, then held out her hand. “I have an idea. Walk with me.”
Inanael turned to look at her, remaining otherwise motionless for several seconds, then wrapped her taloned hand around the cat’s sculpted one.
She led the taller woman up the beach, away from the water, past the sand and the sea oats. Then she sat down and folded her hands in her lap, eyes growing unfocused as she started to look elsewhere, through other worlds, other minds, other lives—anywhere people fell in and out of love, Mariaya was there. “Her… no, her,” she murmured. “A perfect moment.” She returned her attention to where she was, looking up with a triumphant smile.
Inanael knelt beside the smaller woman, wings flexing. “You are about to interfere with a mortal on my behalf,” she said, tone wary.
“No. I don’t intend to interfere with them at all.” She took both of Inanael’s hands. “I intend to interfere with you.”
The rabbit stiffened. “That is not wise.”
“We shall only still the sea a brief while. And you might be surprised how many beautiful stories begin with those words,” she replied, eyes sparkling.
After a long moment, the rabbit smiled her own fractional smile, and nodded her head once.
Lady Mariaya leaned forward and touched her lips to Lady Inanael’s, and her silver wings spread to catch and then eclipse the sun. The world became brilliant darkness.
“—wake up, for Zanu’s sake!”
She opened her eyes, looking up at a low wooden ceiling, then turned her head, looking across the pillow at the open window. Sunlight streamed in. She smelled salt air. The voice, along with irritated knocking, came from behind her.
“I’m awake,” she mumbled, sitting up in bed. Not her bed, not the canopy bed deep in her suite, deep in her palace. A small bed, pink cotton sheets, a floral print cover. Wooden floor, oval throw rug. Pale orange stucco walls. Had she ever been here before?
“It’s almost nine, Anna.” The voice sounded just as irritated as the knocking.
She looked out the window at the unfamiliar scene, over tiled rooftops that followed the steep winding hill road down toward the harbor. Unfamiliar? No. she knew most of the people in those homes, at least by sight. She knew that was Geoffrey’s house, the baker with a crush on Anna’s mother that would forever remain unrequited. She knew that was Amelie’s house, the old woman who had been a friend of Anna’s mother’s mother, now lying on her deathbed. She knew where the markets were. She knew the person banging on the door was Anna’s sister, Delphine.
Her sister, Delphine.
“I’m awake,” she said again, more loudly, rising to her feet. White rabbit paws, as expected. She rolled her shoulders, then looked over each one in turn, feeling momentary puzzlement at seeing nothing, then looked around the—her room. She headed to the dresser, then the wardrobe, putting on a tiered blue and green sun dress, and studied herself in the mirror. The woman who stared back in shock looked… almost as expected. The blue in the dress was a shade lighter than her eyes.
“I swear, you’ll be late for your own funeral,” Delphine was saying, stomping her foot for emphasis even as Anna opened the door. Delphine had light brown fur rather than white and a round face, contrasting with her sister’s delicate features, and she looked cute even when cross—a quirk, Anna remembered, which tended to make her more cross when mentioned. While Delphine stood an average height for a rabbit woman, Anna positively towered, something frequently lamented by her mother. You’ll never find a husband if the boys are intimidated by you! Don’t stand up so straight. And smile.
Anna laughed. “I don’t think that’s any time soon,” she said, brushing past her glowering sister. She knew her funeral would not be. Neither would Delphine’s. Yet the knowledge was distant, remote, something she had to consciously call on. For the first time in a memory much, much longer than Anna’s, it was possible to set aside. Not easy. But possible.
“Breakfast has been out for an hour,” Delphine carped, hurrying to be in front of her sister as they headed down the narrow stairs. The steps ended alongside the kitchen, a small room made larger by huge windows, bright morning sun streaming onto the wooden counters and terra cotta tile floor. “It’s probably gone sour.”
Only one dish remained on the table, artlessly arranged rind cheese and hand-torn bread chunks drizzled with honey. “It’s cheese,” Anna replied. “It’s already gone sour.”
Delphine was unwilling to be mollified. “Then it will be covered with flies.”
Anna sat down, giving her sister an amused look.
“Sticky flies. Tracking honey everywhere,” Delphine elaborated, looking exaggeratedly cross, then burst out laughing. She rested her hand on her sister’s shoulder as she walked past. “I’m going to the well. Just try to wake up after the sun hits your face in the morning. You might have a good excuse tomorrow, but you didn’t today. Or yesterday. Or the day before.” She kept repeating or the day before as she grabbed two wooden pails by the door and walked out onto the cobblestone street.
Anna regarded the plate. She often skipped eating entirely unless she had guests at the palace, a very rare occurrence. She would never have something this—this simple when she did take meals.
What sat in front of her was what she’d had nearly every morning of her nineteen years. Alien, and so familiar.
After a few moments, Anna picked up one of the chunks of cheese and popped it into her mouth, honey dripping off onto her fingers. The flavor was creamy and briny and sweet all at once, unexpectedly intense, and her eyes widened. Honey dribbled down her chin. She wiped it off awkwardly with a piece of bread, then did something Anna did frequently—her sister might say too often—but that Queen Inanael had never been recorded doing in any of the many tales of her through many names and many centuries.
A glare from the returning Delphine reminded her that there would be no servants to clear away the dishes and clean the kitchen. Anna’s mother might do that, were she home, but her father was out of the village this week, off to broker deals for the spices and dry goods he sold. This left his wife tending the store rather than tending the house. As the eldest of the two children by a full three years Anna should be in charge of the household, but she remembered with some chagrin that Delphine did more of the work even on Anna’s most helpful days—which today certainly hadn’t started as.
She wasted too much water cleaning her own plate and worse, nearly broke it twice, first from banging it against the side of the wash basin and the next from making it so soapy her grip slipped. On the next plate—Delphine and her mother had left both of theirs out, as well as the serving dish—she let Anna’s knowledge flow to the forefront of her mind. Not only did she finish without any more close calls, she found she knew where everything was stored, and knew what the rest of her tasks for the morning were, including which of her parents’ clothes needed mending and even how to do it. While she doubted menial labor was the experience Maraiya had intended to gift her with, having little weighter on her mind other than needle and thread left her strangely content.
When she finished the work noon had just passed. She considered what she needed to do next. As her mother chided her on occasion, there was always something to be done. (“Stop admiring your eyes in the mirror, child, and use them.”) But she didn’t see anything truly pressing, and she was too distracted by her anticipation for… what? Something she had been looking forward to. Something tonight.
Tapping her footpaw in impatience, after a few seconds she shook her head at herself and headed outside, down the steep street. She had seen it nearly every day. She had never seen it until now. Brightly-colored paint peeled off rough stone walls in the bright summer sun. The bay breeze carried the scents of ripe fruit, drying laundry, pungently cured fish, and the occasional unpleasant bucket emptied in an alleyway. Townspeople—mostly other women—bustled between the narrow, closely-set houses and the market stalls and shops by the harbor. The grey cobblestones of the street warmed the fur on her paws as she picked her way along, waving to the people she knew, often receiving waves in return.
The street seemed busier than normal for a summer day. She could hear out of place, raucous noises off to the east from the more well-to-do part of town: hammering, occasional bursts of untuned musical instruments. And then she knew what she’d been trying to remember. Malgin Karanos, the village mayor for as long as Anna had been alive, sponsored two dances a year, claiming it was a religious duty—he was named after the god of music and dance, yet had no talent for either. The first was the winter ball at his estate, an exclusive and invitation-only event that she’d never been to (although her parents had, twice). The second was an outdoor summer dance on his estate grounds open to the whole of the town. Over the years it had evolved into a renowned festival, with performers and market vendors and musicians from across the land attending.
Anna didn’t remember being that interested in it before, except as a sheer spectacle. She wasn’t much of a dancer, and even if she were, she didn’t know anyone she was interested in dancing with.
Wait. Was that still true this year? She didn’t think so.
As she reached the level ground by the harbor, where the street met the wide central avenue running along the water’s edge and through the commercial district, the breeze strengthened, a sharp tang of seawater and damp wood overwhelming all other scents for a moment. She stepped onto the weathered dock, passing a blood-covered table where two vulpine fishermen cleaned their morning’s catch, and stopped to rest her hands on a piling. It provided an excellent view of the four-mast sailing ship moored there. This was not one of the town’s fishing fleet, but a navy warship, by far the largest vessel in the harbor today. Unlike the low, small boats covered in weathered nets and barnacles, the galleon gleamed, some of its crew polishing the brass fittings and wiping down the cast iron cannons as she watched.
Her attention shifted to the sound of a wolf barking curt orders at the otter crewman who’d been polishing the closest railing. The otter looked younger than she was, the wolf at least a decade older. She couldn’t quite make out the words, but the otter shot a guilty glance in her direction and turned his full attention to the brass, ears set back. The wolf shot her a dour look and stalked back below deck. She realized the otter must have been chastized for paying more attention to her than his work. She felt her ears color. While Inanael could certainly turn heads, her beauty was rarely written of without the qualification of terrible or dreadful. Anna had a similar—nearly identical, truly—build, with no qualifications to it.
“Anna!” a voice called from behind her, back on the avenue. She spun around, searching for the speaker. Rylan.
The fox, there, waving, smile bright, standing taller than she did, handsome black hair drawn back in a ponytail. She knew him. She’d known him since they were both very young, starting out liking him in the way children did, then disliking him in the way older children did—then, as they began to like each other in the way of still older children, he was gone, his parents moving to a larger city in search of better work.
Six months ago, he’d returned. She’d barely recognized him then. But she’d barely been able to keep her eyes off him since. That had led Delphine to exasperatedly snap at her sister for keeping her hands off him so successfully. The conversation came back to her now: “He’s not looking for a romance with anyone but a vixen, I’m sure. Mother wants me to look for other rabbits, after all.”
Her sister had made a rude noise. “Mother wants grandchildren. But we’re not talking about offering him a dowry, are we? Your heart doesn’t always follow your race. Neither do your loins.”
“Anna!” she’d mimicked, hands on her hips. “Stop pretending you don’t know how attractive you are, even if your ears are scraping the clouds. I don’t care if he thinks he’s only looking for other foxes. Unless he’s only looking for other men, he’s looking at you.”
Anna snapped back to the present as Rylan turned to the younger tod he was with—his cousin, Richard—and spoke a few words, then jogged toward her as his cousin continued on. “I hope you’re still looking forward to the festival tonight. That you’re still intending to come.” The mix of hope and worry in his eyes turned it into a question.
“Of course. You’re who I’m coming to dance with.” She smiled, broadening it quickly as the fox’s tail wagged. “I can’t imagine anyone in the town won’t be there.”
“Ah, I know you’ve never been much for idle socializing. You’ve said as much to me more than once.” He laughed. “But it’s quite reassuring to hear you say that. I’ll be there an hour before sundown.”
He looked over her shoulder at the ship at something, and she turned as well. The otter sailor was looking in their direction. When he saw Anna had turned, too, he immediately began tending to a new section of railing.
“I trust this sailor isn’t bothering you, is he?” Rylan kept his tone amused but projectedly loudly enough for the otter to hear.
“No, not at all,” Anna said, laughing.
“I assure you I’ve been quite well-behaved, sir,” the otter called, giving his tone a formal military cadence. He didn’t look up from his work, but he did smile.
Rylan laughed, too. “Sorry,” he said, addressing Anna rather than the otter. “I’m being less gallant than merely pushy, aren’t I?”
“You’re being some of both.” She smiled, taking one of his hands in both of hers. “And it’s sweet, but don’t pick a fight on my account. I’ll see you again in just a few hours.”
His ears pinkened at her touch. She hadn’t been that bold before, she recalled—but even knowing that, she couldn’t help but give his hand a slight squeeze before letting go.
He took a deep breath. “I’m quite looking forward to it.” The fox took two steps back and bowed to her, then headed back down the street, stepping so bouncily his paws seemed barely in contact with the stones.
Anna giggled again, then headed back up toward her house, following a different street. She had more housework to do before the dance, and would likely have less time to get ready than she imagined.
“Are you sure it looks nice?” Anna spun around to face three-quarters away from the mirror, twisting her head about to see her backside.
“For the third time, it looks amazing,” Delphine said tiredly. “With a tiara they’d be calling you queen.”
She knew the kind of material and tailoring a queen would have, and this was certainly not at that level. Yet it was surely the best dress Anna had ever worn. It had been her mother’s, refitted to her by a professional seamstress a few weeks ago. The white was so pure it made her fur seem cream-colored; the cloth had been layered in light blue at the sleeves, neckline, and hemline. The corset was dyed the same color, laced in the back with golden thread. Delphine had tied it so tightly Anna had complained, but she had to admit the look was splendid.
She took a breath as deep as the corset would allow and smiled uncertainly. “And you don’t think this is too… too much?”
“Don’t be dense. I’m aiming for too much.” She crouched down and lifted up Anna’s foot, slipping a leather sandal on, then did the same with the other foot.
Anna sighed. “Who’s going to be wearing footwear at this? I don’t think—”
Delphine gave her an exasperated look. “Beautiful women wearing gowns and corsets.”
“I don’t see you wearing your sandals.” Her sister had dressed prettily but more simply, a light yellow blouse and forest green pleated skirt with a matching sash.
“If things go as I’m hoping with Joseph, by midnight I won’t be wearing anything.”
“And I knew you’d say that, so I don’t think it matters that your outfit is harder to take off.” She stood up, then grinned. “Although if he gets desperate, tell Rylan it’s fine if he cuts the corset lacing. I have another spool.”
Anna felt the color already in her ears reach her cheeks. She opened her mouth but couldn’t think of quite what to say in response.
Delphine shook her head, clearly biting back a laugh. “I simply don’t understand how I’m three years younger and still your elder. Now come on. Let’s get you there before Rylan notices how many other girls are staring longingly at him.”
While the sun was low in the sky it hadn’t met the horizon yet, and while the music had begun—they could hear it from the street outside the house, even though the estate was a good ten minutes’ walk—it wasn’t dance music yet. From the occasional burst of laughter, Anna guessed they were accompanying a performance on the main stage. Or perhaps competing with it. Mayor Karanos spent lavishly, but rarely coordinated the entertainment nearly as well as he ran the city.
As the two rabbit sisters crested the last hill before the mayor’s estate, the street seemed almost empty. At the top of the hill, though, they were just high enough to see the whole of the estate spread out like a living map. The crowd surged and ebbed like a living sea. It appeared as if all the town, and more, filled the lawns and fields, spilling out into the surrounding streets. In the orange light of the sunset the mayor’s mansion gleamed like a magical palace. Even though she’d seen it before—
—and seen Inanael’s palace, at which the mayor’s whole grounds would fit in one of the smaller wings, or if the queen so chose on a servant’s nightstand—
—at that moment Anna thought it might have been the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
She made her way down into the crowd as quickly as she dared, feeling very mindful of her clothing now. It was too fine a choice for the summer dance, wasn’t it? The winter, perhaps—but no, it might not be fine enough for that—
“Look,” Delphine said, reaching up to touch her sister’s shoulder and pointing toward the gate.
Rylan stood by it, leaned against the high metal bars. He held both hands in front of him against his body, looking through the crowds inside searchingly, worriedly. Anna beamed and hurried toward him.
The fox’s outfit might well have been tailored to his form, dark blue trousers and waistcoast over a ruffled white shirt. It maintained a perfect gentleman’s look, while subtly displaying more of the shape—if not more of the fur—of the body underneath than the loose clothes he customarily wore. As she approached, she found herself amending her thought of the previous moment. The mayor’s estate was the second most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
“Rylan!” she called as she approached. His head snapped around and he started to say something, but stopped in mid-syllable, staring at her with his muzzle slightly open.
He found his voice again as she reached him. “You always look lovely, Anna, but you look—you look truly stunning this evening.”
“And you’re looking very handsome,” she said, fighting to keep the blush away from her ears this time even as her smile widened.
“Ah, that’s sweet of you, but I feel quite outclassed.” He managed a more rakish grin.
“Oh, Lord,” Delphine muttered under her breath as she passed by, just loud enough for Anna to hear. “Will you two just get it—” She passed out of her sister’s hearing range before she finished the thought.
Anna cleared her throat. “I think the dance will start shortly.” She held out her hand. “Shall we?”
“Yes, but first.” He held out his right hand with a flourish. Between his fingers he held the stem of a large red hibiscus.
She took it gently and lifted to her nose. It still had its scent, honeyed, exotic, more delicate than that of a rose. “It’s beautiful.”
He wrapped his fingers around hers and guided it up to her head, tucking it into her hair over her left ear. “They’re said to only bloom for a day, but I have faith it shall last the night.” Then he held out his arm for her, his luxurious tail wagging.
Anna beamed again and linked her arm with his. Together they headed through the gate.
The din of the crowd grew more intense past the walls, and the carnival atmosphere reached a cheerful delirium. Smoke from roasting vegetables and meats intermingled with scents of perfumes, shampoos, cut grass and dozens of species, with the occasional floral note from the hibiscus when a breeze caught it just so.
“The last time I was at one of these, I doubt I was much past knee-high.” Rylan looked dumbfounded. “Was it always this much of a spectacle?”
“It’s grown over the last few years. At least, I’m told so. I was at one two summers ago, but the time before that had to be… when you last lived here.”
The fox lifted his brows in surprise. “That was eight, almost nine years ago. You’ve truly only been to a single one?”
She nodded. “Only one.”
“I can’t imagine how many eligible bachelors you’ve disappointed by not being here to dance with.”
“You flatter me.”
“Ah, but it’s true. I should say I can imagine how many, as I’ve heard more than one pining for you.”
“Men don’t pine,” she said with a grin.
“Of course we do, dear girl.” He ducked a nearby juggler without unhooking his arm from hers, making her duck as well, and deftly led her through the crowd toward a larger lawn with an octagonal stage at its center. Musicians had begun to set up on the stage, and the mayor’s servants were shooing people back to clear space for dancing. “We just express it differently. You knit things and sigh to one another, we get into drunken brawls. Truthfully your way is far more sensible.”
She couldn’t successfully repress her giggling, and just shook her head.
“Seriously, look around us.” He indicated the crowd with a grand sweep of his free hand. “Do you see how many men look toward us longingly? I’m fairly sure most aren’t directing that gaze toward me.”
She let her own gaze follow his hand. “You’re making me feel self-conscious. And I can see more than a few women looking toward us.”
“They’re clearly jealous of your beauty.”
Anna laughed. “Are we going to spend the night deflecting one another’s compliments?”
“No, I’m finished. For now.” He grinned. “I’m hoping to spend at least some of the night dancing.”
The musicians—a motley band of deer, mice and one skunk—had finished setting up; the servants were erecting wooden torches on tall poles within the circle they’d cleared out. The sun still outshone the firelight, but it nearly touched the rooftops now, and bathed the revelers with the bright orange glow of a bonfire.
When they had lit the last torch, the servants silently disappeared, and one of the musicians took up two huge mallets, approaching a kettle drum. He struck loudly enough for the crash to echo across the crowd, waited several seconds, did so again, then a third time. By now other couples—and a few solitary dancers—had begun to fill the open space around the stage, looking toward the performers expectantly. An audience of non-dancers had also paused, although twenty yards out from the stage the festival continued on without concern.
The drummer had picked up tambourines now, and joined the rest of the musicians—wind instruments and guitars—at center stage. She saw no signal pass between them, but they launched into a sprightly triple time piece.
“My,” Rylan said with a laugh, tail swishing behind him. “So much for starting out with the traditional processional. Do you know how to dance a saltarello?”
“No, I don’t. I’ve never even tried—”
But he’d already taken her hands and started to lead her toward the cleared area between the torches. Only a few other couples had started moving yet, most seemingly as taken aback by the energetic music choice as she was. “That’s fine. Just twirl a lot and hop every ninth step and no one will notice.”
She laughed. “Rylan!”
“It’s true!” He started to move, counting his steps aloud as he circled about her. “One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three. One. Two. Hop! One. Two. Three.” He spun on each three and the “hop” was more slide than leap. She did her best to follow, keeping her upper body straight and arms low toward her sides, mimicking Rylan and the other dancers. She felt her feet had become twice their normal size and three times as heavy, and she was sure her spins were merely awkward lurches, that each hop would bring a muffled cry of pain from the fox as she stomped on his paw.
But she never did. “You’re a natural,” Rylan said with a smile, looking into her eyes. She hadn’t done anything like this—
—in a thousand centuries—
—since she was a child. By the end of the song, she’d stopped feeling self-conscious.
The next song, in quarter-time, moved at a slower pace, although still with more vigor than Anna remembered from dances in her childhood. Of course, at those dances she really had just been hopping about. Now she was moving precisely—as best she could—following Rylan’s lead, arms held like that and feet moving like so and maintaining just the right distance from her partner.
It was easy until she put it to such analysis. Becoming that conscious of her motions just made her stumble; Rylan lifted an arm to steady her and grinned.
“I’m sorry,” she said, breathless.
“You’re doing fine. Don’t think too much on it, just keep moving to the music.”
She nodded, doing her best to follow the advice, now trying desperately not to think about not thinking. After a few more measures, the tension faded, replaced by a happier longing for a dance. Soon, she hoped, they would play a dance for which holding Rylan, feeling his arms around her, would be appropriate.
Such music was rare, though, and could be a little scandalous for a party held by a public official. The next number was less energetic than the first but no less than the second, and at its end they retreated to the side to wait out the next one.
Before it began, Anna found herself startled by someone approaching to her side. “Madam, I don’t suppose you’d favor me with your next dance?”
She turned, then looked down at the hopeful face of the otter from the ship this afternoon, dressed in his finest naval uniform, smiling up bashfully.
She laughed and turned back to Rylan. “Do you mind?”
“You again,” Rylan said, crossing his arms. “Well. If the lady will grant that, I won’t stand in her way.”
The otter lifted his hands. “Just for one number, and I promise I’ll be nothing but a gentleman.”
“You’d best,” Rylan said, although he kept his voice light.
As the music began, the two stepped forward. This number was the slowest of the night, a more romantic melody. Fortunately none of the other couples touched one another for it, so she felt safe following suit. For his part, the sailor didn’t seem to mind. “Your name is Anna, I overheard?”
“I’m Edward. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Anna.”
“I hope you won’t think this too forward, but you’re truly one of the prettiest women I’ve ever seen. Your gentleman is extremely lucky.”
She felt her ears color. “That’s very flattering, but come, sir. I thought sailors had a girl in every port.”
“A slanderous lie, madam. It’s at most a girl in every other port. Why, often barely every third.” He grinned.
Anna laughed, unable not to smile back.
The otter was at least as good a dancer as Rylan was, adding the occasional flourish to his step and always remaining light on his feet. As much as she enjoyed the show of slight competition, Anna found her thoughts drifting toward the fox throughout most of the music.
As the song came to a close the otter stepped back and bowed deeply to her, arms out to the side. She followed suit. “Thank you. You’re a lovely dancer.”
“You are as well,” he said, and smiled wistfully. “I hope your gentleman fox understands how lucky he is.”
“He does,” Rylan said, stepping in from the side and taking Anna’s hand. The fox’s tone remained light, but she picked up the tension underneath.
“You’d best,” the otter said with a rakish grin. He bowed to Rylan as well, then moved off.
“Quite the dancer,” Rylan murmured, watching him head off.
She tilted her head to the side. “You’re not jealous, are you?”
“Perhaps a touch,” he admitted. “He’d offer far more exotic a life to his wife than a fisherman would.”
“A life of being left alone for weeks at a time, when she would be expected to do little more than tend to the house and count the days until his hoped-for return?” She smiled. “That’s not the life I’d choose, if I had a say in it.”
“That lifts a weight off my shoulders to hear.” He offered his arm to her. “Shall we head to the vendors and find dinner before the next dance?”
“That sounds lovely.”
They fashioned a meal of bread from one merchant, cheese from another, roasted meat and vegetables from a third, ale from a fourth, and took a seat at a wooden table shared with another couple.
While Rylan and Anna ate the sun finished setting, even the last wisps of pink-orange light vanished into the night. When they returned for the final dances of the evening, only the torches and the moon lit their footsteps. This time, Anna didn’t worry about where to place her feet. She didn’t need to. Following the music was enough.
After two more songs, one of the musicians stepped forward, and spoke in a voice that projected over the crowd. “I believe some of you have been waiting for this next song most of the evening.” The stag waved his tambourine in the direction of Rylan and Anna. “Some more than others.” The crowd laughed, with scattered clapping and a few hoots. Anna ducked her head.
“I told you, you attract attention,” Rylan murmured as the music began—this time a slow, measured foxtrot. He clasped his hands with hers, fingers entwining, and they moved close together.
“I don’t know if I know how to dance this,” she stammered.
“You’re doing beautifully.”
Taking a deep breath, she nodded. And again—of course—just following the music led her feet to the right steps. She might not have been the most graceful dancer that evening, certainly far from the most practiced, but she could lose herself in the look that was in Rylan’s eyes right now and that was good enough.
As the music drew to a close, as they stopped moving, Rylan touched his nose to hers, a bit of intimacy that few couples not already married would show in public. Without thinking about more than just following the music to its natural end, she tilted her head up a fraction, turned it just so, and the touch became a full kiss.
She heard a few gasps—and a few claps—from the crowd around them. Rylan’s ears shot straight up. But he didn’t pull away.
“I hope you two weren’t expecting us to have brought the ring,” the stag called from the stage, to ripples of laughter.
Anna pulled away, feeling that blush once again. An apology for her rashness came to her lips, but as she took in the expression on Rylan’s face, his own blush, the wonder, the love, she let it slip away unspoken.
Hand in hand, they walked away from the stage, past the estate’s gate, down streets that—thanks to the festival—were nearly deserted. The full moon, now above the rooftops, cast the cobblestones in a pale blue glow that muted the brightness of the painted walls. “You know, Anna,” Rylan finally said, “I’ve had a crush on you since… well, since I was taller than you.”
She laughed. “You’re still taller than I am.”
“Am I?” He made a show of moving one hand between the top of her head and his. “By a whisker, maybe. And when we were teens I’m quite sure you had a full foot on me for a while.”
“Oh, not that much.” She tilted her head. “I always had a crush on you, too.” She was quite sure that was true.
He led her through a small wrought iron gate between two buildings, opening not onto an alley but a small courtyard garden. The moon’s light reflected from a fountain pool, broken up by delicate ripples. They sat on the grass, and he gave her another kiss, still gentle, but lingering for long seconds, tongue touching her lips before withdrawing. She leaned against him, resting her against his shoulder as his arms wrapped about her.
“I think I’d best not keep going before I get that ring,” he murmured, sounding regretful.
“I think it’s all right if you kiss me again.”
He touched his nose to hers, looking into her eyes. “I think if I do that it might become very hard for me to stop at a kiss.”
“I think that’s all right, too,” she whispered.
Rylan kissed her again, and he didn’t stop at the kiss. And even with the hesitations, the uncertainty, the struggle with the corset’s lacing, it became very much more than all right.
She stood on the shore of a vast sea, the colors—of the ocean, the sky, even the sand—supernaturally vivid. The water lay so still it might have been a mirror.
“Was it a beautiful day?” the woman standing beside her said, tilting her head and smiling obliquely, gold eyes shining.
“It was…” she trailed off, smiling.
“Oh, please tell me that’s a blush.” She clapped her hands in clear delight.
“It was a very beautiful day,” she finished. “The day after tomorrow, Rylan and I—”
“Rylan and Anna.”
“Rylan and Anna. Yes.” She looked out over the still water, her smile faltering.
“If they have long lives, they will have many beautiful days, I think.”
“Their lives shall both be long. I know this.” She sighed thinly. “I would like—I shall have a little more time with them.”
The woman sounded startled. “I’m glad to have given you this moment, my friend. I’m very glad you enjoyed it. But it’s time to return.”
“Not yet. Soon.” She spoke firmly now, and continued to look out across the sea. She would not be denied in this, and she felt certain that—despite the mounting exasperation of her companion—she could not be forced.
Anna blinked awake. Unlike yesterday, the sun had barely risen high enough to come in her window.
She sat up, unsettled, rubbing her forehead. What had the other woman been saying in her dream? She couldn’t remember who she was now. Everything had begun to fade, so fast. Such was the way of dreams, though; she rarely remembered them on waking.
Throwing off the blankets, she slipped out of bed and to her feet, then opened the wardrobe, selecting a plainer outfit than either of yesterday’s.
As she finished tying her blouse, she paused, looking at the bedside table. The red hibiscus lay there, as fresh as when Rylan had handed it to her last evening, despite his description of it as lasting only a day. Giving it a curious smile, she picked it up, then tucked it by her ear the same way he had.
This time when she came down to the kitchen, her mother stood at the counter, chopping vegetables. Delphine sat at the table, nibbling on grapes and flashing Anna a clear batten down the hatches expression out of the elder rabbit’s line of sight.
“So,” her mother began, without looking up. Even though she stood shorter than either of her daughters, she had a deeper voice than either as well. Her build was stout and she’d had grey fur for as long as Anna could remember, but she moved at only a fractionally slower clip than her youngest. “I’m given to understand you and that fox boy put on quite a show at the festival last night.”
“I wouldn’t say that, ma-ma,” she replied with a smile.
“What would you say, then?” She pointed accusingly at the hibiscus with her chopping knife. “A close dance with a man you’re not betrothed to? A kiss in front of the whole town? Disappearing afterward?”
Delphine perked her ears at the last. She’d also disappeared, of course, but she hadn’t been at the dance, either.
“We didn’t ‘disappear,’” Anna protested. “We just—just went for a walk. Rylan was a perfect gentleman.”
“‘Just.’ A perfect gentleman wouldn’t have taken an unmarried young woman off on a walk.” She harrumphed and resumed chopping. “And I’m not such a naif as to think those grass stains came from a dance.”
Anna stammered, but Delphine came to her rescue, even as she flashed her sister an amazed—and approving—look. “Oh, come on, mother. Anna’s almost an old maid by now, and she’s finally been swept off her paws by someone. Be happy!”
Her mother scowled. “You watch yourself, young lady. ‘Swept off her paws’ is nonsense enough. I’m more concerned about her being swept onto her back.”
Anna made a choking noise; Delphine covered a giggle.
“And marriage isn’t about being swept off anything,” her mother continued, voice growing even more firm.
“But isn’t love?” Anna said.
Her mother stopped chopping, freezing for a few moments, eyes unfocused. Then she sighed melodramatically and resumed the knife work. “I suppose I can’t keep waiting for your father to find another rabbit nobleman with an eligible son. We tried that. Twice. But a fox? What about my grand-children? And a fisherman.”
“Marcus was a merchant, not a nobleman, and Lord Shrimple? Please,” Delphine cut in.
“Lord Shimpel,” her mother corrected with another scowl.
Delphine waved a hand dismissively.
“You’ve always been impractical and starry-eyed, Annabelle. It’s time to get your head out of the clouds and join the rest of us mortals. Always work to do.” She sighed. “After breakfast, I’m going over to Amelie’s with flowers.”
“Dear. Did she finally pass?” Delphine asked.
Her mother nodded. “I haven’t heard for certain, but I visited her yesterday afternoon and I doubt she made it to sunset. Anna, you go down to the fishmonger and find us a nice cut of salmon. There’s a nice bunch of thyme and basil in the garden and it’s put me in mind for doing a cure. We can have a special dinner in a few days.”
They rarely had fish unless they were entertaining, and she remembered from dinners as a child that cured salmon was one of Rylan’s favorites. Anna and Delphine exchanged a glance; the younger rabbit grinned manically.
“Yes, ma-ma,” Anna said, not quite keeping the smile from her voice.
The harbor had less bustle this day than yesterday, as if the town hadn’t fully recovered from the festival yet. But nearly all the merchants had opened for business and the docks buzzed with activity, several more fishing boats having joined the navy galleon at mooring. She had never asked which boat—if it were any of these—that Rylan worked on, and so she stepped out onto the pier, approaching the group at the fish table.
The stench of entrails had been strong yesterday but today it was all she could do not to gag. Several fish on the bloodied plank flopped and flailed vigorously despite being cut open and, in one case, having a filet already cut—raggedly—from its body. “Damn you,” one of the vulpine fisherman was crying, “lie still!”
Another fisherman, who’d caught sight of Anna approaching, cleared his throat loudly at his companion’s curse, gesturing toward the rabbit with a nod.
The cursing fisherman turned, scowl still on his face, then grimaced. “Excuse my language, miss. Hadn’t seen you come up.”
“It’s all right,” she said, holding a handkerchief over her nose. “Are they always that… energetic?”
He shook his head. “You always get a couple lively ones, but it’s been every single one today.” He added another curse muttered under his breath.
“Can we help you with something, miss?” the one who’d cleared his throat cut in.
“Oh, no. I mean…” She bit her lip. “I was curious. Do you know which of those ships Rylan works on?”
“Oh,” the first fisherman said, bushy brows lifting. “You’re her.”
The second one pointed at one of the boats. “He’s a net handler on the Rosetta there, miss. Not on board now, though. They’re stuck in port for a few days doing hull work.”
She nodded and smiled. “Thank you.” With a wave, she headed back along the pier, then made her way to the fishmonger’s, the largest stall in the harbor market.
While Anna didn’t know much about fish, she’d known the shopkeeper all her life, and trusted him to pick out and wrap the best piece for curing. She was startled, then, to hear a voice close by her ear as she left the market, fish in the basket she’d brought with her. “Oh, you don’t want that one.”
She turned, startled, to see a wolf, taller than she was, dressed in a naval uniform. He was accompanied by a shorter otter—not Edward, the one that she’d danced with last night. She didn’t like the expression on either one.
“Rabbits don’t know much about fish,” the otter said. “She should ask an expert.” He pointed, unnecessarily, at himself.
“The fishmonger said it was fine,” she said curtly. “Excuse me.”
As she stepped forward, the wolf moved backward, keeping pace with her. “You’re the one Edward was dancing with last night, weren’t you?”
“She is,” the otter said. “But just one dance.”
“Not very friendly,” the wolf said, looking directly into Anna’s face with a leer.
She felt her hackles rise, fighting down the impulse to—
—take their souls where they stood for the affront—
—run. She blinked, momentarily disoriented. Where had that thought come from? “I… I have to go. The fish will spoil if it’s not on ice.”
“You should give us a dance,” the otter said.
“You’re too much a beauty to waste on fisherman foxes,” the wolf said, still leering. He reached out for her chin. She jerked back a step, and he laughed.
“Leave me be,” she said, voice quaking. “I’m taken.”
“I don’t see a ring,” the otter said, grinning.
“And I don’t think,” the wolf said, suddenly grabbing her shoulders, “you treated Eddie with the respect he deserved. So we thought we’d give you another chance to—”
“She said to leave her be,” the fishmonger bellowed at them, stalking up toward their side. The old bear’s ears were set back. He looked like an angry mountain.
“This isn’t your business, old man,” the wolf said, relaxing his grip on Anna but not completely letting go of her.
“Let me go,” she said, managing to keep her voice steady.
The bear put his hands on his hips. “Your commander is Captain Williams, isn’t he?”
The wolf narrowed his eyes. “Yes,” the otter said, voice sounding uncertain now.
“Grew up around here, you know. When he’s in port he goes out drinking with his old friend the fishmonger.” He looked between both sailors. “You might want to think long and hard about what we’re going to talk about tonight.”
The otter and wolf exchanged glances. “We’re not meaning any harm,” the wolf said, letting go and raising both his hands placatingly. “It’s just a bit of friendly joshing.”
The bear’s scowl deepened fractionally.
The otter cleared his throat, then tipped his cap to Anna, walking off at a fast clip. The wolf made the same gesture, but with a slightly sarcastic sneer, ambling after his shipmate.
“Are you all right?” the bear said, turning toward Anna.
“Yes.” She caught a flash of movement off to the left and turned, distractedly, seeing a fox tail vanish into the crowd. She didn’t think it was Rylan, though—he’d have come up to challenge them himself, no doubt. “I’m fine.”
“I do wonder what our taxes go to sometimes,” he muttered.
The hallway felt cold, imperial: tiles of orange marble for the floor, solid white marble for walls and ceiling. A place a merchant’s daughter didn’t belong. She ran down it, past other halls, past forbidding metal doors. Was she being pursued, or was she late?
She couldn’t find where she needed to be, and she heard other footsteps behind her, heavy footsteps, but saw nothing. She turned down a larger hallway, then a still larger one, then one bigger still. The doors towered over her now.
Another turn. Another. Abruptly she faced two massive iron doors, a skeletal rabbit standing guard by each. The rabbits looked down at her. She barely came to their knees. They bowed, as if in recognition, and silently opened the doors.
The room behind had the same orange marble floor, the same white walls, but it lay in shadow, hazy light trickling down from high overhead, glinting off dust mote spirals, reaching only a few tiles. She picked her way from bright spot to bright spot, seeing—things—moving in the darkness. Glowing things. Fanged things.
Then, suddenly, she faced a column. Drawing back, she looked up. A vast throne, fashioned of bones and skulls, rose above her. The throne sat empty, but it seemed no less horrifying for it. What kind of creature—
“Take your seat,” a voice said urgently in her ear. “Now.”
The scream woke her up, sending her bolt upright in bed. Even after she realized it was her own, she couldn’t stop another from bursting out.
Her door flew open, Delphine plunging into the room. “What is it? What is it?” She looked around wildly.
“I—” Anna took in a ragged breath, rocking forward on the bed, tears suddenly streaming down her face. “I’m Anna! I’m Anna!”
Delphine looked puzzled, then swiftly sat down on the bed and drew her sister close. “Who else would you be?” she murmured, sighing. “I don’t know what kind of nightmare you just had, but you’re all right. You’re home.”
“Home.” She swallowed, forcing her breathing into evenness. “I’m sorry.”
Delphine shook her head. “No need to apologize. But no screaming again tonight, hmm? You’re lucky mother’s such a sound sleeper. I’d worried the White Lady herself had come for you.”
Anna’s brow furrowed and she blinked slowly, then let out a weak laugh.
She tried to go back to sleep. When the sun came, though, she doubted she’d managed to do more than close her eyes and shift restlessly under the sheets. But she had no more dreams. As soon as enough light had filled the room for her eyes to begin to pick up color, she dressed, then picked up the hibiscus. Still red, still perfect. Frowning curiously, she slipped it back behind her ear.
When she came down to the kitchen, her mother was already there. A basket of flowers sat on the table. “Didn’t you bring those to Miss Amelie’s family yesterday?”
“She isn’t dead yet,” her mother said, shaking her head. “I don’t know how. Her breath’s been a death rattle for over a day. The flowers look just as good today as yesterday, so I’m hanging onto them until she finally passes.”
“She’s a tough old tangle, but…” She shrugged, then took a kettle that had just reached a boil off the flame.
Delphine had come down as well, and gave her sister a disbelieving look. “You? Up early?”
“I didn’t sleep that well.”
Her sister’s look changed to one of sympathy and shared secrets.
“Excitement for your date tonight, no doubt,” her mother said dryly, starting to pour water over coffee grounds, thick liquid draining out through cheesecloth into the pitcher below.
Anna’s ears colored. “How did you know about that?”
“Mothers hear everything. Your father should be back from his trip tonight. You remembered that, right?”
“I did, yes. But he’ll be just as happy to see me seeing someone as you are, and more likely to admit it openly.”
She grunted, but couldn’t quite keep a smile frmo her face. In that moment she looked more like her daughters than usual. “Respect your elders.”
Anna leaned over and kissed her mother’s cheek. “I always do.”
“Only compared to your sister.”
Delphine snorted loudly.
The sun had traveled well past the meridian when Delphine ran up the road toward the house screaming.
Anna had been working in the garden; she’d been about to stop for the afternoon, to go in and cool off and prepare for the evening. She turned to her sister, eyes wide. “What is it? What’s happened?”
“It’s Rylan,” she gasped, grabbing her sister’s hand and tugging her along. “Lost his damned mind, is what’s happened. Come on!”
Abruptly Anna found herself running alongside Delphine, careening dangerously down the hill. “What do you mean?”
“Starting a fight,” Delphine wheezed. “With that otter. Over you.”
“What? No!” Anna looked stricken. “Why would he do that?” She ran faster.
They’d almost reached the bottom of the hill when they heard the pistol shot ring out, followed by screams.
By the time the two rabbits had reached the crowd, whatever had happened was over; they had arrived only for the aftermath. Edward was being restrained by two burlier sailors, including Commander Williams. The otter looked anguished, his gaze turned to the ground, toward a vixen Anna recognized. A nun, one of the town’s nurses. Her expression was grimly set, resigned, and her simple blue blouse was covered with blood—
Anna drew to an abrupt halt, staring numbly at the fox on the ground, under the nurse’s hands.
Then, without being aware of the steps she took, she was at his side, the shriek she wanted to let out caught in her throat like a fish hook.
“Oh gods,” Delphine breathed, dropping to her knees by her sister. “He said—he said the otter had threatened you—”
“Rylan,” Anna choked out, putting her hands on his chest. It didn’t seem like all the blood pooling underneath, aleady starting to soak her dress, could have come out of such a small entrance wound—could have come out of such a small body. She shuddered. Had it gone through him? How big was the hole in his back?
He looked up at her, eyes locking onto hers, trying to speak. “He…” he wheezed. “…and the wolf… cousin saw… you at market…”
“It wasn’t him!” she said, voice rising hysterically. “It wasn’t him! And it was just words!”
“I didn’t want to shoot, I swear,” Edward cried, sounding in almost as much pain as Rylan. “He attacked me. He wouldn’t listen to anything I said!”
“Rylan,” Anna whispered. “This—this isn’t like you. How—why?”
“Love… can drive you mad,” Rylan got out, smiling almost apologetically. A spasm wracked his body and he coughed out blood.
She swallowed. “We—we have to get you to the hospital, take you—”
“We can’t do anything,” the vixen said. “I’m very sorry.”
“What? No!” Anna’s voice rose again.
The nun took Anna’s hand in both of hers. She looked haggard. “There’s nothing—nothing left inside him. It’s a miracle he’s lasted long enough to say goodbye. Please. Say it now.”
Anna’s tears finally came at that, and she leaned over Rylan, giving his bloody mouth a kiss. His blood smeared on her lips.
“Wanted another dance,” he whispered. “I love you, Anna.”
“I love you. So much.” She moved her hands to squeeze one of his. He clasped back weakly, then released his grip, eyes rolling back.
Anna let out a single sob. Over the next minute his breathing grew more ragged. But it never stilled.
“He’s still alive,” she whispered, then looked up at the vixen, speaking more loudly. “He’s still alive. We’ve got to help.”
“I told you—”
“He’s still alive!” Anna’s voice became a shriek.
“He shouldn’t be!” the nun snapped, ears back. “I don’t know what’s keeping him here! Gods below, he’s the fifth one in two days who just won’t die!”
The nurse’s outburst shocked Anna into momentary silence.
“He needs you,” Delphine said softly.
Anna took a deep breath. “That’s what I’m trying to—”
“No.” Her sister put her hand on her shoulder. Her voice was the same as ever but the cadence had become… different, another voice Anna recognized, but not Delphine’s. “He needs to move on. He doesn’t need Anna. He needs you.”
Anna turned, and stopped cold as she looked into her sister’s now golden eyes.
“He needs you,” she repeated. “They all do.”
Her lower lip trembled, and she took in a deep, ragged breath. Anna’s will remained strong, but for Rylan’s sake—for her function’s sake—hers had to break. Closing her eyes, she nodded, once, very slowly.
Then, before she opened her eyes again, she opened her wings.
Gasps and screams came from the crowd around her, but she paid them no mind. She moved to slowly kneel by Rylan, by the vixen. By Anna. The vixen had scrambled backward, making a religious sign with a hand and prostrating herself. Anna’s tear-stained face had become terrified.
Inanael glanced at Delphine, but she was back to being only Anna’s sister, as terrified as the rest. She reached out and touched both of the sisters’ shoulders very gently, looking into Anna’s eyes as she spoke. “This should not have been, but I cannot unwind it,” she whispered. “Forgive me.”
The rabbit girl’s expression shifted from fright to wonder, then back to sadness. She nodded, very slightly.
Inanael lifted her hands, then rested them gently on Rylan. His breathing stilled.
Rising again, she beat her wings once, and—to mortal eyes—vanished, a cold wind swirling out in all directions from where she had stood.
This time Maraiya sat watching the waves crashing against the beach. Unlike most days, the sky roiled this morning, fierce storms visible against the horizon. They matched the expression on Lady Inanael’s face as she stormed toward the winged cat.
“I am sorry,” Maraiya said softly before the rabbit spoke. “For your loss, and for theirs.”
Her voice quivered with restrained anger. “That was not the way their story should have ended.”
“Their story was not yours to play out,” Maraiya said sharply.
“You put me in their story!”
“For an evening. For an evening, Inanael.” The cat sighed, closing her eyes. “All love stories, when followed long enough, are tragedies. They can only end in loss. I know that better than anyone.”
“All stories must.” The anger had seeped out of Inanael’s voice, replaced by resignation. “I should have left that first night. I know. That kind of experience…” She looked down at the sand. “It is something I can so rarely have. I acted… unbefittingly.”
Maraiya smiled a little, without speaking, and turned to look over the sea.
Fire returned to the horned rabbit’s voice again. “But I saw their lives, Maraiya. That is not when Rylan should have died. Something changed. Rylan—he said he went mad—” Inanael stopped, then turned to look straight down at her friend.
The cat remained facing the ocean, unmoving.
Inanael spoke in a hoarse, dangerous growl. “Maraiya.”
“You had to come back.” The cat’s voice was barely above a whisper.
For a long time no noise passed between them but the crashing of the sea. Then, heavily, Inanael’s hand came down on Maraiya’s shoulder. Death kneeled by Love, and looked down with her bone white eyes.
“Anna will find love again,” Inanael said softly, “And she will keep it while she is alive. You will promise this to me now.”
She nodded, looking up at the rabbit, speaking more passionately. “She shall meet a merchant from another village, and he shall love her deeply. They will have two—”
Inanael disappeared in a flash of lightning that echoed across the dark clouds.
Maraiya took a deep breath and let it out in a slow sigh, then sank down, head on her knees, watching the storm come in.